Australian Kangaroos v New Zealand Kiwis
A new-look Aussie side prepares to host a very familiar-looking Kiwi outfit for the traditional mid-year Test in a fixture that threatens to deviate from the usual script.
The Kiwis have struggled badly in the one-off mid-season Test over the years, winning just once – the second fixture, back in 1998 – and losing 14.
A usually-settled Kangaroos side, with the benefit of club and Origin combinations, has frequently proved too strong for Kiwi outfits that often feature players with little experience playing alongside each other.
Not so this time; the Kiwis are boosted by most of their Four Nations-winning squad being available and will feature no debutants to Australia's four.
That successful campaign in November last year included back-to-back wins over the Aussies; another win here would see them notch three in a row against their Trans-Tasman rivals for the first time in over 60 years and also jump to the top of the RLIF world rankings.
While halfback Shaun Johnson has been under fire for a slow start to the year and five-eighth Kieran Foran has missed games recently with a hamstring strain New Zealand have stuck with the players who have been there and done it before.
Dean Whare is out injured, so Peta Hiku will play centre and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck returns at fullback having not played Test football since the 2013 World Cup. Ben Matulino is also playing his first Test since that tournament, Jason Taumalolo is out injured meaning Tohu Harris will start.
Sam Moa is also back, as is Thomas Leuluai – who missed the Four Nations final through injury after playing the pool games – with Lewis Brown bumped to 18th man.
The Aussies will have no shortage of motivation headed into this one and will be boosted by the return to form and fitness, and return to the side, of Matt Scott and James Tamou.
The Aussies have four Test debutants: wingers Josh Dugan and Alex Johnston, centre Will Chambers and bench forward Trent Merrin.
Billy Slater's late withdrawal due to a shoulder injury means Greg Inglis again plays fullback with Michael Jennings joining the side at centre.
Johnathan Thurston rejoins the team after missing the Four Nations along with Luke Lewis and Nate Myles. Boyd Cordner, Josh Jackson, Daly Cherry-Evans and Ben Hunt are among the Four Nations finalists to miss out.
Watch out Kangaroos: Storm prop Jesse Bromwich is arguably the form front-rower of the NRL at the moment and Warriors bookend Ben Matulino isn't far behind. Each is running over 160 metres per week, making them the third and fourth most productive props in terms of running after Aaron Woods and Andrew Fifita. When you add in Bromwich's mobility and footwork at the line and Matulino's prolific offloading (an NRL-high 21 after eight rounds) it makes them a formidable prospect for the 'Roos forwards to deal with.
Watch out Kiwis: Despite the late withdrawal of Slater the Aussies have an in-form and familiar 'spine' of Inglis, Thurston, Cronk and Smith. Four of the best big-game players you'd ever want to see, but the one in stunning form of late is Cowboys halfback Thurston.
'JT' has nine try assists in eight games – second in the competition after impressive Panthers fullback Matt Moylan (10) and all bar one of those in the Cowboys' current five-match winning streak. He's one of those players that can turn a game in an instant, and even more so when he's getting some help from his forwards.
Key Match-Up: Greg Inglis v Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. There are key battles all over the park – Cronk v Johnson, Scott and Woods v Matulino and Bromwich, Luke v Smith – but each set starts with the fullback and each of these men will be hoping to be their country's custodian for years to come.
While Inglis's 137 metres and 3.5 tackle breaks per game are nothing to sneeze at, they pale when compared to how the Roosters custodian has started the year. He leads all comers for average and total metres with an absurd 235 metres per game. He has one more tackle break than Inglis this year and both have three tries, while Inglis (five) edges Tuivasa-Sheck (three) for try assists.
The History: Played 129; Australia 95, New Zealand 31, drawn 3. It's been a long history of dominance for the Aussies, particularly in the one-off mid-season fixture, but the Kiwis have won the past two – both in last year's Four Nations. Interestingly, New Zealand have won four of their past five at Suncorp – three wins and a loss against Australia, and a win over England.
What Are The Odds: Australia $1.35 v New Zealand $3.15. Nearly five times the money has been placed on Australia in head-to-head betting. Sportsbet punters don’t necessarily believe it’ll be a cakewalk for the Kangaroos though – the most popular winning margin is Australia 1-12. The Kiwis have more support at the line, and Alex Johnston and Josh Dugan have been the best backed players in the first try-scorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; touch judges: Anthony Eliott & Nick Beashel; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton & Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine, Live, 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: We can't see this being a one-sided affair either way. History certainly doesn't favour the Kiwis but has the tide started to turn just a little bit? With a number of good players in good form and plenty of continuity the unsettled nature of previous Kiwi line-ups is absent, while this time around it is the Aussies who are blooding new players and forming new combinations. They certainly have more than enough champion players – especially in key positions – to get the job done, and plenty of their own are also in form. No doubt it will be an enthralling clash – but we'll tip the Kiwis to defy history with a six-point win.
This article first appeared on NRL.com